It started the way so many New Year’s resolutions do. Renee Elsdon Jacobs was on her sofa with her husband last January, discussing the big goals that they had for the year. Jacobs, now 41, had just survived the insanity of her first two years of motherhood and had been eyeballing the fastest known time (FKT) for summiting every California 14er for several years. Her husband, Matt, was stoked on the idea. “You should do it this year. Let’s make it happen.”
And with that, Jacobs, a self-proclaimed “total newbie,” began an intense nine-month training program that led to her shattering the women’s FKT, shaving three days and eight hours off the previous time of 9 days, 12 hours, and 17 minutes.
Logistics planning for an alpine speed record is tough. (This blog post Jacobs wrote has a thorough list of everything she used and ate during her travels.) Training will generally involve a trifecta of long cardio sessions, strength work, and rock climbing. Climbers need to maneuver off-trail at high altitude for long stretches and plan back-up routes if rockfall or weather steers them off course. It’s a sufferfest most people would steer clear of.
Growing up in Bakersfield, California, Jacobs was an avid runner, but didn’t get into mountain sports until college at UC Berkeley where she started rock scrambling and peak bagging. Still, she saw it as little more than occasional weekend fun. “I was always a career woman. I got two degrees – architecture and structural engineering. I was totally career-driven my entire life. I wanted to be a partner in a firm and all that stuff,” she said.
For over a decade, Jacobs was a weekend warrior who backpacked, skied, and climbed around her work schedule, but her inspiration to do something bigger, more adventurous, got a boost when she befriended Sam O’Rourke, the holder of the male FKT for California’s 14ers. Having a record holder as a friend brought the whole concept down to earth for Jacobs; the impossible was suddenly very possible. “It’s not like the people doing this stuff are magic superheroes from another planet, they’re just people who have dedicated themselves to their passion to make it happen,” she said.
For Jacobs, making it happen meant lots of TRX and yoga videos during her son’s naptimes, coupled with rock climbing and headlamp trail runs after her husband got home. Jacobs explained, “When you’re training like I was, almost every single minute is scheduled out.”
Aided by the mentorship of O’Rourke, she planned her route based on shortest mileage and personal ability. “Once I’m out for 24 hours, I slow down a whole lot. I can’t maintain my normal pace, and things get out of hand,” said Jacobs.
On September 2, 2019, Jacobs hit record on her GPS unit and set off alone at 2:15 am from the Bishop Pass trailhead on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, lit only by the glow of her headlamp. A text message from her husband reminded her of the crummy weather forecast – rain and thunderstorms for the next 3-4 days.
This leg would be the longest of the entire route, a 36-mile, high elevation jaunt full of steep granite, exposed ridges, and over 11,000 feet of vertical gain. With the weather bearing down on her, Jacobs wasted no time. She lassoed and prusiked up the aptly named Thunderbolt Peak before moving on to free-solo the 5.6 summit block of Starlight Peak.
“All of the Palisades are beat you down, fill you with doubt terrain,” she recalls. The sky soon opened up and started dumping. “It was rain and thunder and all of this nasty stuff that made me ask myself, “What am I doing here?” says Jacobs. “You have to ride the wave and know it’s not going to last forever.”
She slogged onward, traversing from North Palisade to Polemonium as rain pelted her shell. After an exposed climb along a wet, knife’s edge ridge leading to Mount Sill, Jacobs paused for a beat and took in her less than stellar surroundings. “I kept my husband informed of the situation via my InReach messenger and internally acknowledged that I was possibly making a very bad decision by continuing to Sill.”
In a stroke of luck, the downpour slowed as Jacobs neared the summit of Mt. Sill. She topped out, then opted to skip the notorious Farquhar Death Chute on Middle Palisade, due to the weather. Jacobs was able to continue on to Split Mountain before skidding down a sloppy, rain-soaked descent route. She crawled through alders that invaded the narrow path, slipping on a root and plopping her entire backside into the thick mud. It was slow going.
She reached the parking lot mid-morning after a grueling 31 hours and 30 minutes of climbing. Tom Grundy, her close friend and FKT driver, helped prepare a quick dinner and foot soak before loading up the car to drive towards Mt. Shasta. Though it would add hours of unplanned time to her trip, Jacobs could no longer ignore the severe weather forecast in the Eastern Sierra, and storm-free Shasta seemed to be the best option.
She was on more familiar terrain now, and the next several peaks (Mt. Shasta, Middle Palisade, White Mountain, Williamson, and Tyndall) flew by, relatively speaking, even lending a few moments of elation.
The instant Jacobs hit the Shepherd’s Pass Trail on her descent from Mt. Tyndall, FloriDada by Animal Collective started blasting on her headphones. “Flow state was in full effect,” she mused as she found herself skipping blissfully down the mountain, serenaded by psychedelic beats.
She only had one leg to go – a grueling, 21-hour stretch up Mt. Russell, Mt. Whitney, Mt. Muir, and Mt. Langley. That morning, feeling confident, Jacobs elected not to set an alarm. “I let myself sleep, and I woke up happy!” she said.
Feeling spunky, she cruised up the trail from Whitney Portal, inadvertently passing a crucial intersection early on and cursing herself for it. “All of my morning stoke went down in flames, and I started cussing to myself and calling myself all sorts of bad names and retreated down the trail to get this error behind me as fast as possible,” said Jacobs.
Despite a less than graceful start, she soon found herself alone on the summit of Mt. Russell, looking over at the colossus of Mt. Whitney, her next target. She quickly tagged Whitney and Muir, grabbing one last glance at her cross-country route up the back of Mt. Langley before the sun set behind its rocky plateau.
She dodged cliff bands and slogged her way across seemingly endless loose, sandy scree to reach the summit, signing the register with a simple, “Renee Elsdon Jacobs CA 14ers FKT #15/15.”
Nearing utter exhaustion on the 7-mile descent, things started getting weird. “I was definitely seeing things. My vision would briefly blur and distort,” said Jacobs. She took in the surrealness of the moment, like a scene out of a film, as she made her final few steps towards the parking lot.
“The music on my headphones became more and more intense as I neared the trailhead and everything felt choreographed, except that I really needed to take a dump. That wouldn’t happen in a movie,” she said. At 6:20 am, the moment her trailrunners hit the parking lot, she hit stop on her GPS tracker. 6 days, 4 hours, and 5 minutes after her journey began, Jacobs became the new holder of the female FKT.
When asked about what was next on the horizon, Jacobs reminisced about a girlfriend who recently broke the FKT on the Tahoe Rim Trail. “She approached it by thinking, ‘I’m not going to go for an FKT, I’m just going to do it in the style that I like.’ And she ended up getting an FKT! So, maybe I’ll take that approach… Just do something and see how it turns out – Maybe I’ll get an FKT, and maybe I won’t.”